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As the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors plays out in headlines across the region, the importance of free and fair media has been talked about a lot.

For Qatar to truly claim the moral ground in this regard, it should repeal its cybercrime law and unblock Doha News, among other things, argues Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. 

Here’s the full text of his speech, which he delivered at this week’s Freedom of Expression conference in Qatar.

Political freedom and especially free expression are at the heart of the current Gulf crisis. That is why so many human rights and journalistic freedom organizations have rallied to Qatar’s defense.

But that also highlights the importance of Qatar maintaining the moral high ground by using this crisis as an opportunity to reform itself.

We are all aware of the terrorism allegations that are said to be the foremost concern.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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I can’t speak to the claims of secret financing. But I am aware that long-term, open Saudi financing of Wahhabi and Salafist preachers and schools has promoted an extreme form of Islam that lies behind many terrorist groups today.

And while we tend to limit the terrorist label to non-governmental groups, the Saudi-led coalition has been causing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Indiscriminate bombing has repeatedly killed many civilians.

An embargo has led to widespread malnutrition and even starvation. A weakened population now faces the world’s largest cholera outbreak, surpassing Haiti’s by a wide margin.

Al Jazeera a ‘dictator’s nightmare’

We’re here to discuss free expression and broader political freedoms. It’s telling that the leading demands against Qatar by its neighbors seem to involve these rights.

Most obvious was the demand to close or control Al Jazeera. In a region known for stultifying official media, AJ was a breath of fresh air.

It wasn’t always perfect. Certain issues, particularly in the Gulf, including Qatar, were taboo.

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Father Emir speaks at 20th anniversary celebrations for Al Jazeera in November.

And in giving a forum to neglected voices, it sometimes crossed the line from featuring legitimate dissenters to giving a podium to those who advocated violence.

But AJ was a key forum for those who wanted to challenge the autocratic rule that remains the norm in the Middle East and North Africa.

It reached its heyday during the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt. It gave people throughout the region a means to be heard when challenging autocratic, unresponsive, often corrupt rulers.

It was, and continues to be, a dictator’s nightmare.

Muslim brotherhood boogeyman

The second key demand was that Qatar stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood means different things in its different manifestations. Some involve violent attacks on civilians and intolerance of dissent—such as Hamas in Gaza.

European External Action Service

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood party.

But the essence of what the Gulf monarchs found dangerous about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it represents a vision of Islamic governance based on the ballot box rather than hereditary (or, in the case of Egypt, military) rule.

Like Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood saw a role for the general public in political discourse and governance. That is a scary proposition for the Gulf royal families and Egypt’s military rulers.

It is noteworthy that Qatar was willing to support the Muslim Brotherhood since this country is no more a democracy than the other Gulf monarchies.

I hope that signals an opening.

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Flags of the boycotting nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt).

But for those other monarchies, the Muslim Brotherhood was anathema.

Indeed, beyond pressuring Qatar to stop supporting Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian governments have rounded up their own Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Bahrain and UAE have even threatened to punish anyone “expressing sympathy” for Qatar.

What Qatar should do

So at its heart, the current tensions between Qatar and its neighbors is about free expression and political freedom.

Yet I would be remiss, speaking here in Qatar, if I left the impression that Qatar were beyond reproach with respect to free expression.

In 2014, Qatar adopted a cybercrime decree, which criminalizes the spreading of “false news” on the internet and provides for a maximum of three years in prison for anyone who posts online content that “violates social values or principles” or “insults or slanders others”—very broad and vague standards.

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In 2016, Qatar authorities used that law to detain a journalist from the country’s only independent news website, Doha News, after he wrote an article naming a man convicted of a serious criminal offense.

In November last year, Qatari authorities ordered internet service providers to block the Doha News site, which has been running since 2011, making it inaccessible to internet users in Qatar.

Needless to say, these are not the acts of a government that should be trying to maintain the moral higher ground in a dispute about free expression.

Doha News

DN

Qatar should repeal the provisions of the 2014 Cybercrime Law that limit free expression. And unblock the Doha News website.

Turkey’s media crackdown

There are things that Qatar could do to uphold freedom of expression in its foreign relations as well.

This week, the Qatari Emir will meet with Turkey’s President Erdogan. I realize Turkey is a close ally, but it is also in the midst of one of the world’s most severe crackdowns on journalists.

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The same principles the uphold the freedom of Al Jazeera to speak the truth, even when inconvenient, should apply to Turkish journalists as well. I hope the Emir will remind President Erdogan of those principles.

There are also important things that Qatar could do to ease the burden of the dispute with its neighbors on the AJ journalists who are here as well as other long-term residents.

Human Rights Watch released a report last week on the plight of families who are facing separation because they are of different nationalities.

Qatari women’s rights

The problem is compounded because Qatar, like its neighbors, allows nationality to be passed only by men, not women, in violation of article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Qatar is a state party.

If a Qatari woman is married to a non-Qatari, her children have no citizenship rights in this country, leaving them vulnerable to pressure from Qatar’s Gulf neighbors.

Igor Alexandrov/Wikicommons

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Those neighbors have already ordered their nationals to leave Qatar, which could include children of Qatari women married to a man from one of those states, even though they have spent their entire lives living in Qatar.

Now would be a good time for Qatar to end gender discrimination in the right to confer nationality to one’s children.

Al Jazeera ‘refugees’

Here I want to make special mention of the plight of Al Jazeera workers.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 Al Jazeera employees, including seven Egyptians, six Saudis, and one Bahraini who said that they cannot renew their passports and thus are worried about losing their Qatari residency permits.

Many of the Egyptian employees moved to Qatar after authorities in Egypt threatened, intimidated, beat, or arrested them.

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One journalist said he applied to renew his Egyptian passport in January 2017, but that Egyptian embassy officials told him in April that they would not renew it. His passport will expire in August.

These AJ employees are classic refugees who need protection.

Qatar’s constitution bans the “extradition of political refugees” and specifies that the granting of asylum shall be regulated by law.

Asylum laws

But Qatar has never promulgated a law on asylum or signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, despite having ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights which requires Qatar to respect the right of everyone to seek asylum.

Nor does the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have an office in Qatar where it could review refugee claims.

And Qatar has no other procedures in place that would allow those who fear persecution in their home countries to seek protection in Qatar or challenge their deportation.

Qatar could become a leader in the Gulf, and reaffirm its commitment to protect people like the Al Jazeera employees, by ratifying the Refugee Convention and Protocol, establishing refugee and asylum laws consistent with those standards, and inviting UNHCR to open an office here.

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So to conclude, there are important things that Qatar can do to maintain the moral high ground from which it has so greatly benefited in its dispute with its neighbors.

As the old adage goes, every crisis is also an opportunity.

Yes, Qatar today faces a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to become a regional leader on human rights.

I hope Qatar will seize that opportunity. Thoughts?

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The ongoing Gulf dispute has spurred a propaganda war among the region’s newspapers.

In this opinion piece, Doha News Editor-at-Large Victoria Scott discusses how several misleading reports in Qatari media have caused some residents to dismiss other, less glowing stories as “fake” – and why this is bad news for the country’s future.

It is a truly disheartening experience to spend days researching and writing a news story that you know will be branded “fake,” simply because some people don’t like what it says.

Thanks to US President Donald Trump, however, that’s now a depressing reality for many journalists around the world, and particularly so for the Doha News team at the moment.

Doha News

DN

Doha News is Qatar’s only independent source of national journalism, and as such has always stuck out amid a crowd of sycophantic newspapers and online outlets.

Even before the Gulf dispute began, reading a Qatari newspaper was like taking a dose of happy pills.

Effusive press releases printed verbatim and an endless parade of photos of high-ranking officials signing deals and staring meaningfully at plans, new buildings and roads reassured you that everything was running smoothly in Qatar.

Oh, and by the way – McDonald’s has a new menu and a revolutionary new model of vacuum cleaner is out in all department stores for a very reasonable price – so that’s nice.

Propaganda war

But the current Gulf crisis has taken glowing media coverage of Qatar to a whole other level.

To be fair, daily newspapers in boycotting countries are currently full of extraordinary stories. Many of these are either tenuously extrapolated half-truths or utter, baldfaced lies.

Khalid Albaih

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It is not surprising then that Qatar’s media is doing its part to push the balance in the other direction.

Every day since the crisis began, they have all carried stories that I believe fall into the propaganda category.

The majority lack statistics or facts, and simply seek to paint a reassuring picture.

For example, newspapers recently ran stories saying London is showing solidarity with Qatar because several taxi cabs bore supportive Qatar messages.

The Peninsula

A recent headline in The Peninsula

This reflected a complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the way advertising works.

London is clearly not “showing solidarity” – an agency simply took a booking, and payment, for some ads.

Then there was this denial that the blockade had affected the airport in any way (Qatar Airways has still not responded to my request for comparable data for the Eid holiday period last year).

Hamad International Airport

Sanjiban Ghosh/Flickr

Hamad International Airport

And this story about how the construction industry in Qatar has apparently also been entirely unaffected by the blockade. It contains no facts, but is not presented as opinion.

While some would argue that the newspapers’ motives are benign and simply a way of reassuring the public and maintaining public morale, I respectfully disagree.

‘Fake news’

I have noticed that many Doha News readers are starting to dismiss factual stories as fiction, simply because they don’t fit the rosy picture painted by other outlets.

This is dangerous.

A major new study published by the Columbia Journalism Review recently analyzed a worrying trend in the US.

There, right-wing Americans abandoned traditional news sources during the recent presidential election in favor of right-wing publications that only reinforced their own viewpoint.

Donald J. Trump/Facebook

US President Donald Trump

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that this ended up skewing coverage of the election in all US media. This is because some issues – such as immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails – got more play than others.

Essentially, fake news stories produced by the right-wing press seeped into the public consciousness and potentially affected the result of the election.

It also meant that well-researched, factual stories that could have changed minds were often dismissed as fake.

I suggest that the proliferation of propaganda in Qatar’s newspapers, and the papers’ enduring reluctance to cover any news that could be vaguely regarded as “negative,” is causing a similar shift away from reality in Qatar.

Exchange issues story

Here’s an example.

Late last month, I wrote a story for Doha News about the fact that a number of foreign exchange firms were refusing to exchange Qatari riyals outside of Qatar.

Doha News had been contacted by several readers who’d experienced trouble changing their riyals on their travels in places where it had previously been a straightforward thing to do.

Tweets from the @dohanews Twitter account asking if this was a widespread issue prompted confirmation of similar problems from many more readers in several different countries.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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The team then called a number of banks and exchange firms in both the UK and the US, who confirmed that they had indeed temporarily ceased to buy riyals because of the GCC Crisis.

Finally, I spoke to a currency expert who gave us his analysis of the situation.

The resulting story, which took a week to write and research, laid out the facts Doha News had gathered, and prompted Reuters to make their own enquiries.

And yet, here are just some of the comments underneath the story on the Doha News Facebook page:

“Don’t believe Doha News, they are paid puppets of the UAE.”
“No wonder that Doha News got a ban in Qatar…..You are increasing panic in people.”
“This is not unusual. And does not indicate something is wrong.”

I found myself answering a string of accusatory comments on all our platforms from people who were absolutely determined that our story was incorrect.

That meant asserting that Doha News was not paid by any government; that it had no interest in generating panic; and was simply interested in publishing the truth.

The currency situation was incredibly unusual, and did indicate something was awry.

QNA denial

However, it may not surprise you to read that Qatar’s local papers were not reporting the same story.

Many were initially silent on the subject.

Neha Rashid / Doha News

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Then, two days later, the Qatar state news agency (QNA) released a statement, shared in all local papers, stating that “reports circulating across different media about the trading and exchange rate of the Qatari riyal were baseless.”

Given all the research I had recently conducted, I knew this to be untrue. But readers of Qatar’s dailies did not.

It’s no surprise then that many readers are struggling to see the wood for the trees.

A dangerous precedent

I lived in Qatar for six years and I still find it fascinating to write about. I have always said that that’s because it has so many untold stories; and sadly, that remains true.

No other national news outlets in Qatar will investigate stories about suffering or injustice, and until Doha News is unblocked in Qatar, it’s tricky for us to do so, too.

Reem Saad / Doha News

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What worries me now is that Qatar’s residents will eventually become so desensitized to propaganda that they will accept it without question.

That means that policy changes that affect the lives of many residents may go unquestioned, and injustices may be able to continue without ever being noticed.

I think back to the many important stories Doha News has covered over the past eight years, such as:

Today, many readers would probably dismiss these stories as fake. And that worries me tremendously.

I believe strongly in the importance of a free media in the development of a nation. The ability to question our leaders and query policies makes, in my opinion, for a stronger community and state.

Realizing that not everything in your country is perfect is the first step to fixing the things that aren’t.

And I, for one, don’t think that’s fake news.

You can follow Victoria Scott on Twitter.

Alain Bachellie/Flickr

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Media freedom in Qatar has continued to deteriorate for the fourth year in a row, according to a new report by Reporters Without Borders.

Qatar is now ranked 123rd out of 180 countries on the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

Down six spots from last year, the score is the lowest the country has seen in at least a decade.

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2016 World Press Freedom Index. Orange is problematic, red is “bad” and black is “very bad.”

The index measures media independence and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, among other things.

Each country’s score is calculated by experts’ answers to questionnaires, as well as “data on abuses and violence against journalists” last year.

Speaking to Doha News, Alexandra El Khazen, head of RSF’s Middle East desk, said Qatar dropped in the rankings for several reasons.

Mostly, however, it’s because nothing was done “to significantly improve the work environment for journalists,” she said.

Despite the tumble, Qatar remains ahead of the rest of the Gulf, except for Kuwait and the UAE.

Doha News

El Khazen pointed out that a Danish film crew was detained and questioned while in Qatar last year.

Their experience comes after authorities arrested two different film crews in 2015. This has made journalists more apprehensive about investigating and reporting on the country, RSF said at the time.

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This year, the Paris-based organization said reporters continue to have “little leeway” to report stories in the face of an “oppressive legislative arsenal and “draconian system of censorship.”

El Khazen said one example of this is the government’s blocking of Doha News inside the country six months ago due to “licensing issues.”

RSF and rights groups have denounced the ban as censorship on one of the country’s only independent media outlets.

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

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And even the US State Department theorized that the blocking of DN had to do with its “coverage of socially sensitive issues ranging from labor rights to homosexuality.”

DN has since moved its operations outside of the country so that it is no longer violating any rules, but the government has still not unblocked it.

However, in March, RSF launched a mirrored version of the Doha News website that is accessible in Qatar to mark the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.

Al Jazeera

RSF does acknowledge that in Qatar, one bright spot amid a sea of self-censorship is Al Jazeera, which swept an awards ceremony in the US last week.

It won Broadcaster of the Year, as well as five gold world medals, 14 silver and seven bronze ones at the New York Festivals World’s Best TV & Films awards.

Paul Keller/Flickr

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Some of the award-winning reports spotlighted investigations in Afghanistan, Hong Kong and India.

But according to RSF, while the network “has transformed the media landscape in the rest of the Arab world,” it “ignores what happens in Qatar itself.”

Al Jazeera is government-funded. So is journalism and communications school Northwestern University in Qatar and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

Strict laws

Meanwhile, local journalists continue to be legally bound to Qatar’s media law, which has not been formally updated since 1979.

Under that, the government has the right to use “prior restraint.” This means it can order news outlets not to cover certain subjects.

The Cabinet also has the authority to shut down newspapers and cancel their licenses, making it almost impossible to cover government affairs critically.

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And Qatar’s cybercrime law, which was passed in 2014, has made it easier for criminals and those with personal agendas to silence others, including journalists.

This is because of its controversial privacy provisions. These make it illegal to publish news related to the personal or family life of individuals – even if the information is true.

The cybercrime law also contains a vaguely worded clause that criminalizes any content found to violate the country’s “social values” or “general order.”

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Dr. Najeeb Al Nuami

Last year, Qatar’s former justice minister publicly denounced the law. Najeeb Al Nuaimi called it a “tool of intimidation” that “was like a knife held close to the necks of writers, activists and journalists.”

Months later, he was banned from leaving Qatar over apparent charges of professional misconduct. He has said the accusations are baseless.

Global woes

Overall, it was a bad year for journalism around the world, with nearly two thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured deteriorating in terms of media freedom. We are now at a “tipping point,” RSF said in its report.

It added that the erosion of free media in democracies has been a particularly troubling development. Both the US and UK fell two spots in the latest rankings.

Popicinio/Flickr

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According to RSF:

“We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.

In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators,” it said.

The top-scoring nations on this year’s Index were Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea held the bottom three positions.

Within the GCC, Kuwait ranked the highest at 104th, falling one spot from last year.

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It was followed by Qatar (123rd), the UAE (steady at 119th), Oman (down one spot to 126th), Bahrain (down two spots to 164th) and Saudi Arabia (down three spots to 168th).

Gulf states were brought down in the rankings because topics like ruling families and Islam continue to remain off limits to journalists there, El Khazen said.

Additionally, RSF slammed the UAE’s increasing surveillance of journalists and Saudi Arabia’s lack of independent media.

Thoughts?